“De facto segregation, we tell ourselves, has various causes,” writes Richard Rothstein in the preface of his book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. There are the familiar arguments: white flight, redlining, personal preferences, income disparities. But Rothstein sets out to prove one thing in this detailed collection of case studies from across the country: “Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States.” For people new to this history or those well-versed to its foundations in policy, the book offers an illuminating and critical analysis that pushes back against the idea that today’s segregation happened largely or even partly beyond the world of policy and politics.
In Houston, residents know the names and numbers of the many highways that segment the city. But lesser known are the places lost in their shadows. “It’s hard to picture what stood there before,” writes the Kinder Institute’s Kyle Shelton, contemplating a stretch of bridge between I-10 and I-69 in Fifth Ward. “Homes, businesses, places of worship, and schools have faded for all but the few who remember their presence before the upheaval of construction.” In his book, Power Moves: Transportation, Politics, and Development in Houston, Shelton provides a much needed social history of the transportation projects that remade the larger region and permanently disrupted the neighborhoods they were built in, a history with parallels in most major cities across the country.
In a year when many cities wrestled with what to do with monuments and memorials from a painful, bloody history, one man confronted that history head on and explored its impact in one of the most intimate spheres of daily life: food. Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South is part personal memoir, part history of a region that confronts the present by reckoning with the past. “By showing the living what the dead went through, I live a scary and unsettling past,” writes Twitty. “I feel like a doorway for all the spirits of the plantations I visit. I feel their souls passing through me as I cook.”
The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South by Southern Foodways Alliance director John Edge expertly covers similar territory with an eye to geography.
Ever the punch line, Florida gets its due in novelist Sarah Gerard’s essay collection Sunshine State. Though she strays from the state, the book offers a personal and literary look into a time and place that is too often dismissed as a meme. Gerard, “dissects what Florida means to the United States with a nuance and complexity only someone who has lived in it—and, just as importantly, moved away from it—can provide,” writes Jason Heller in his NPR review.
And for more from the Gulf Coast, Jack Davis’ The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea looks at the deep natural history of the region with a sweeping narrative that travels to its present day landscape of offshore oil wells, hurricanes and precarious shrimpers.
When planner and current Kinder Institute director Bill Fulton took office in Ventura, Calif. he started blogging about the experience as a way to debrief after weekly council meetings. “And before long, I realized I had actually written a pretty interesting chronicle of what it was like to serve as an underpaid, overstressed, part-time local elected official during hard times.” That experience has been turned into Fulton’s Talk City: A Chronicle of Political Life In An All-American Town. The chronicle for local politics junkies offers “rare insight into the life of an elected official in a typical local government in the United States.”
And for the younger readers: does your child’s book only include trucks, cars and trains? What about bikes? A cargo bike? A fold-up bike? A family commuter bike? How about electric cars? Double decker buses with a rooftop garden? Well, it’s all there in Bicycles, Airships and Things that Go! by Bernie McAllister so your kid can learn about the diverse reality of transportation and the imagined futures of it too.
Not enough? Check out last year’s list of best new reads for urbanists, including Evicted and Street Fight.